A still from “Graveyard Fun,” one of the shorts from Damnationlands’ past that will play alongside new politically-themed films. Image courtesy of Damnationland

This pandemic has taken a lot from us Mainers. Sea Dogs baseball. Tourists (sort of a mixed blessing there). The carefree feeling of being able to go buy milk without worrying whether we are walking into a horror movie of life-threatening, out-of-control viral madness. 

But we’ll be damned if any virus is going to take our annual Maine-made horror movies away from us this Halloween. 

Sure, you can’t go to the State Theatre for the gala premiere of this year’s 11th annual October’s eve of Maine’s only all-local horror, thriller and dark weirdness anthology film event, Damnationland. (The organizers are fiendish, not stupid and irresponsible about your health.) But, thanks to some extra creativity, flexibility, and one unlikely but deeply necessary team-up, Damnationland is still happening this year, with its first virtual premiere taking place on Oct. 27. And, like any cinematic thrill ride worth its Raisinets, the 2020 edition of this venerable Maine institution comes with a twist. 

Seeing the writing on the walls back in April or so that they were clearly going to have to remain within, the intrepid Damnationland team started brainstorming about just what a pandemic-hobbled Damnationland filmmaking process would look like. Luckily, nothing begets invention better than necessity. And nothing helps in the birthing process better than fear. So, with the anxiety of not only a sudden black hole on the calendar vying with the gnawing specter of a potentially disastrous continuation of the political climate, a fortuitous connection brought Damnationland together with the get-out-the-vote activists of the organization NextGen America. 

And thus, an unholy – yet civic-minded and potentially country-saving – partnership was born. NextGen America, founded by billionaire and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is a progressive, youth-led organization dedicated to getting every single young voter to the polls, a goal, according to NextGen Maine Communications Director Elizabeth Rosen, that could very well make the difference in the Nov. 3 election. Citing not only the presidential but the senate and state races as vital in determining everything from LGBTQI, women’s and voting rights to racial justice and healthcare, Rosen says her group’s goal is to motivate “every young voter” to exercise their voting rights this time around. 

But what does that have to do with Damnationland, Maine’s scruffy, ever-growing Halloween-seasonal parade of chills? According to Damnationland Program Director Mackenzie Bartlett, plenty, especially since, like NextGen, this yearly filmmaking showcase has primarily been about young people (Maine filmmakers in this case) coming together to show just what their collective brainpower can do. Says Bartlett, “Since 2016, we’ve seen a growth of politically charged horror that represents the current climate of what society’s anxieties are. Horror is inherently political.”

Striking upon the idea to combine popcorn thrills and politics, the two groups have combined to make this year’s Damnationland a hybrid horror event, with the traditional horror trappings festooning short films that point out what Rosen calls, “the horror of another Trump term.” “This is literally life or death,” says Rosen. Adds Bartlett of 2020 Damnationland’s mix of fictional and real-life horrors, “We wanted to carry on not just the fun spirit of Halloween, but to lean a little more toward being politically relevant.”

Before anybody rolls their eyes, I’ve got two words for you: “Get Out.” (The title of Jordan Peele’s Neo-classic horror thriller. Also, get out with your eye-rolling.) Bartlett’s absolutely right – horror films mirror our fears. As those fears grow and change, so do their fictional representations, so the dissociation and division of 1970s America become George Romero’s mall-walking zombies, and Japan’s lingering wounds of nuclear annihilation manifest in a Tokyo-crushing giant avatar of nuclear fire, Godzilla. And don’t get me started on “Videodrome.” 

For this year’s Damnationland, Bartlett promises a mix of the old and new, with the virtual program consisting of seven past films that showed off the aforementioned topical horror concept, alongside eight new one- to two-minute “micro-shorts” targeted straight at the heart of this Halloween season’s attendant election anxiety. Describing the – as always – Maine-only lineup from filmmakers Erin Enberg, Mariah Klapatch, Tadin Brown and EC Gregg, Amber Chilton, Shannon Meserve, Ben Rooker and Bodhi Ouellette, Samuel James and Bartlett herself, Bartlett says these scaled-down, responsibly shot Damnationland shorts include one about a vampire trying to get to a daytime-only ballot box, a “hyper-stylized, hyperbolic” view of what a fully privatized healthcare system would be like, and an impossible-to-categorize mind-trip about the Supreme Court, featuring “weird, experimental footage” of a court run by Maine lobsters (which to me still sounds better than GOP plans for the highest court in the land, to be honest). 

For Rosen and Bartlett, Damnationland and the nonpartisan NextGen makes perfect sense. (Progressive they may be, but NextGen will also help Republicans exercise their rights.) Rosen cites her organization’s long history of virtual voting events like concerts and speakers, while noting excitedly that Damnationland represents the “largest scale such project” NextGen has ever helped bring together. For Bartlett, Damnationland has always been about community. So matching up young, motivated Maine filmmakers with the additional theme of the very real fears felt by young voters in the state only focused their ghoulish imaginations. Concludes Rosen of this collaboration of Maine moviemakers and grassroots organizers, “This year, we don’t have to fake being scared – we’re just seeing it as motivating, not paralyzing.”

The 11th annual Damnationland will be hosted (virtually) on the State Theatre’s website on Tuesday, Oct. 27, complete with dark, genre-busting Maine-made shorts both old and new, plus some live(stream) surprises, according to Bartlett. Check out the Damnationland website and Facebook page or NextGenAmerica.org for the still-being-finalized details. For more information about your voting rights and options, head to vote.org, or FairFight.com — and vote like your life depends on it. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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